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Commentary: Collegiate sports needs a 'cultural change'

Published: Tuesday, July 24 2012 10:41 p.m. MDT

It's debatable whether the NCAA was too harsh — or not harsh enough — on Penn State's football program.

It's been questioned whether school administrators' roles in the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal should have been subject to NCAA discipline.

The way the NCAA polices its member schools has been a hot-button topic in recent years in regards to why certain rules exist and why they can be enforced in an iron-fisted manner — or if they are selectively enforced.

But there was one phrase uttered Monday morning that no university president, coach, student-athlete, booster or fan should argue with.

That is, as NCAA President Mark Emmert said, the need for "cultural change."

And it doesn't just apply to Penn State. All schools with big-time, big-revenue football or basketball programs should take those two words to heart and take a good, long look at themselves.

Last year at this time, pundits and observers were debating NCAA rules in the wake of a scandal involving Ohio State's football team, in which players traded their Big Ten championship memorabilia for free tattoos.

There was more to the scandal than that, but the tattoos got the most ink (pun intended) because the incident was at once comical on its face and quizzical in its nature.

Didn't the players earn those championship items? Aren't they the property of the student-athletes? Whose business is it what they want to do with them? Why is a tattoo parlor owner's decision to make his end of this transaction matter to the NCAA?

Well, it does.

In November, the Sandusky scandal broke, and as a father and a Penn State alumnus, it left me shaken, disgusted and saddened at the heinous actions of the former defensive coordinator and the now-haunting inactions of those in authority who should have done more to protect children from this predator.

Suddenly, tattoos didn't seem like such a bad thing, and I wanted to live in a world where getting free tattoos was the worst thing someone could do.

But we need to talk about tattoos.

And Dillard's clothing at 90 percent-plus off (Florida State football). And a hookup on handicapped parking placards for a closer parking spot (UCLA football).

And a nicer house for the star running back's family (USC football).

And fans begging for leniency for football players who mug them, because "That's my team … that's just the way it is sometimes" (Tennessee football).

We need to talk about the culture that — regardless of whether there should be rules against it or how strongly those rules should be enforced — gives freebies to star student-athletes because they are very good at playing a game.

"They deserve it." ... "They've earned it." ... "They're our heroes."

That is the mentality that fosters the culture that creates the environment that the Jerry Sanduskys of the world can infiltrate, trading on an existing trust and taking advantage in an evil way — which people in positions of power hesitate to question and fail to stop.

And it can leave a trail of betrayed trust, ruined lives and badly wounded souls, which is exactly what the Penn State scandal did.

Some will say — whether indicting or defending a school — that the revenue and recognition that come with athletic success make schools what they are.

And they will be correct to the extent that it lifts the profile of the school, making it a "brand."

Well, I don't know anyone who goes to Dartmouth or Penn because they have great rowing teams.

Purdue, Northwestern, Stanford and Cal have much more going for them than football.

And that notion adds to the entitlement mentality that leads to the above-mentioned messes.

Like the dry tinder that served as the perfect kindling for the wildfires plaguing the West this summer, big-time college athletics are a potential habitat for those who don't care whom they hurt to get what they want.

Change the culture, because while Penn State will pay off its exorbitant $60 million fine within five years, the infinite price of pain is being paid over a lifetime by at least 10 young men and their families.

Society cannot afford it.

email: rtrishman@desnews.com

Twitter: robrunning

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